“Not long ago, the Melvins were doing an interview. They’re a lot like us in that they’ve been around a long time with the same core. They were asking them, ‘Well, what’s the secret to keeping a band together for 30 years?’ ‘Who said we did?’ The secret is kick somebody out every now and then. They said, ‘Usually when things are getting bad, it’s all coming from one source. Just get rid of that.’ Good advice.”
I’ve just asked Mike Cooley — half of the Drive-By Truckers brain trust — how his band has stayed more or less in one piece over the course of 18 years and 10 studio LPs, in spite of numerous defections and loads of interpersonal drama. And Cooley is attempting to answer me without really answering me. In an hour, I’m scheduled to meet the brain trust’s other half, Patterson Hood. He’ll arrive 20 minutes late, begging forgiveness, because his family has only one car, and his wife picked up their two kids from school and she can’t ever be on time for anything. When I ask Hood the same question, he’ll be a little more specific in his comments regarding the recent, not-so-amicable departures of bassist Shonna Tucker and guitarist (and Tucker’s boyfriend) John Neff. Cooley, as is his custom in songwriting or interviews, measures his words more carefully, though his way of saying nothing somehow says everything.
“I’m hoping that this whole album cycle will go by without any mention of former members. Because I’m an asshole,” he says, with a laugh and a crooked smile that implies I might tell you something if you turn that recorder off, but otherwise, no way in hell, buddy.
The standard-bearers for self-aware Southern rock, Drive-By Truckers have never been a mainstream success. Even a worshipful music media wandered away after championing early-’00s efforts like Southern Rock Opera and Decoration Day. After all, it’s not as if a band composed of guys in their forties (soon to be fifties) has a chance at being the Next Big Thing. To outsiders, Drive-By Truckers’ amalgamation of AC/DC, Tom T. Hall, Jim Carroll, and Walking Tall (Joe Don Baker edition) can be a little foreboding in its narrative density and bare-knuckle toughness. Also, the band name is pretty stupid, which Hood (DBT’s most prolific songwriter and chief theorist) will freely admit with a sheepish shrug.
When Hood named the band, he tells me later, he was obsessed with trucker songs and hip-hop, including early Outkast, Goodie Mob, and Too Short. “I thought, Wow, a name like that, I bet that name would go over well at the Star Bar in Atlanta, and it did. It was great for that,” he says. “Didn’t really have any thought of how it would feel to be in a band called that 10 years later. It’s like those hippies that name their kids Moonflower. Years later, you go, ‘Goddamn, I wish my parents hadn’t named me that.’”
If for whatever reason you’re not already onboard with Drive-By Truckers, let me make a quick case: No rock band has ever married thunderous guitar riffs with novelistic storytelling quite like them. Hood writes fantastically stylized songs about real people who seem fictional (like “The Buford Stick,” about two-fisted Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser), and Cooley authors awesomely naturalistic tunes about fake people who seem nonfictional (like the first-person hit man ode “Cottonseed”). Their concerts are communal experiences where bottles of bourbon are passed among band members and high fives and hugs are exchanged between strangers in the audience.
It’s a helluva lot of fun, and DBT’s body of work can stand toe to toe with any rock band of the past 20 years. (This includes the new English Oceans, the band’s best LP since 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark and its hardest rocking in at least a decade.) But it’s hardly big-time show business. The only way to keep it together if you’re in a band like Drive-By Truckers is to be stubborn about never ever falling apart, even when it appears from the outside that you are doing just that. If this band broke up tomorrow, nobody from Coachella or Bonnaroo would be writing out big checks for a reunion. So, your options are simple and unequivocal: Remain vertical or disappear forever into an unmarked grave.
Cooley and I are nursing bottles of Stella Artois and sitting in a loading area behind DBT’s offices on the outskirts of Athens, Georgia. The back part of the space houses the band’s gear, but the section we’re in has been converted into a clubhouse outfitted with (among other miscellanea) a couple of leather couches, a makeshift bar, banners from the band’s past tours, enough booze to adequately service an all-night after-show party, several photos from the set of The Magnificent Seven, roughly a dozen bass-drum heads, an ancient-looking, nonoperational organ that guitarist-keyboardist Jay Gonzalez bought at a Salvation Army store, a 16-track recorder that may or may not work and used to be installed at famed Alabama institution Muscle Shoals Studio Sound, a defaced black-and-white glossy of the Captain & Tennille, and a sign that reads “I’m Not a Hard Drinker, It’s the Easiest Thing to Do.”
This is where DBT would rehearse if DBT rehearsed.1 Actually, DBT has been limbering up all week at the legendary 40 Watt Club downtown, where the band is performing three shows from Thursday to Saturday. The gigs are a warm-up for the upcoming tour in support of English Oceans, as well as a long-standing tradition. For more than a decade, Drive-By Truckers have performed winter runs at the 40 Watt, a special treat for hard-core fans who travel from around the country to see a band that typically plays theaters back inside the confines of a sweaty, 500-person-capacity club.
The studio operated by the band’s longtime producer, David Barbe, is next door.
Tonight is the second concert at 40 Watt, which happens to fall on Valentine’s Day. Cooley lives in Birmingham, Alabama, a four-hour drive from Athens, and his wife and kids have joined him in town for this brief homecoming tour. I had spied the Cooley clan pull up in a Honda Odyssey just a minute after I parked outside the squat industrial-park building where DBT is unceremoniously headquartered. (Neighbors include a sign shop and an IT company.) Having seen Cooley tear through a Jack Daniel’s fog seven or eight times onstage, I quietly lurked inside my car so I could witness him in the incongruous role of patriarch. They rolled right past me — wife Ansley out front with the Cooley kids (two boys and one girl, ages 10, 8, and 6) while Dad trailed behind in leather jacket, shades, and long hair falling into his eyes, looking like a debauched but still handsome Fred Astaire crossed with Bill & Ted–era Keanu Reeves.
Once inside, Cooley dispatched the wife and kids out back to kill time on a basketball hoop while I put him through the promotional paces. Once the interview was over, Cooley’s plan was to escort his brood to a matinee of The Lego Movie before heading over to the 40 Watt.
Back to the original question: The Drive-By Truckers haven’t stayed together for the past two decades so much as moved in and out of different incarnations with the same two guys at the center.2 DBT was already undergoing its first significant lineup change when the band entered the national consciousness with its absurdly ambitious third album, 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, which addressed (in order of importance) the South’s conflicted class and racial politics, the struggles of dead-end rock bands, the mythology of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the virtues of mainlining whiskey versus maintaining healthy romantic relationships. Guitarist Rob Malone (who contributed two songs to SRO) was replaced in 2002 by a baby-faced 22-year-old singer-songwriter named Jason Isbell, and bassist Earl Hicks (who coproduced SRO’s predecessor, 1999’s brilliantly titled Pizza Deliverance) departed the following year, making room for Tucker, who was married to Isbell at the time. If there is such a thing as a “classic” lineup of Drive-By Truckers, this would be it — Hood, Cooley, Isbell, Tucker, and drummer Brad Morgan — though it held only through 2006’s troubled A Blessing and a Curse.
Drummer Brad Morgan has also been a steady presence for most of that time. “Brad’s a new guy. He’s only been in the band 16 years,” Hood says. “Brad always knows how to go in there and just kind of get everybody back on the same page. He’s got a miraculous talent. Brad can find your keys, too. If you’re touring and you can’t find your keys, or you’ve lost something, he can find it.”
But the Hood-Cooley partnership hasn’t broken. The roots were inauspicious: It goes back to Florence, Alabama, where they met in 1985 when they were students, then roommates, then dropouts at the University of North Alabama.
“I remember he called the apartment. The first time I ever talked to him. Somebody had been calling and hanging up and I was getting pissed,” Cooley says.3 “The phone rang and I just picked up the phone and started screaming obscenities into it, and then he introduced himself to me over the phone. So that was how it started.”
Hood wasn’t the one who was hanging up, by the way.
On Southern Rock Opera, Hood ruminated on “the duality of the Southern thing,” weighing the region’s progressive artistic legacy (personified by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant4) against its regressive social history (depicted on the album in the guise of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace). On English Oceans — a garage-y, heavily Stones-influenced gut shot that was bashed out in a scant two weeks — the band explores the duality of the Truckers thing: DBT has always projected a unified front as a rock band’s rock band, a real unit for whom old classic-rock tropes like “The Road” and “The Rock Show” are still sacred, near-spiritual concepts. But in reality, DBT has only ever been a union between two guys who met over a misunderstood phone call. It’s a complicated real-life relationship tucked inside a bombastic celebration of rock-and-roll romanticism.
Obligatory note about the current version of Lynyrd Skynyrd being a caricature of the excellent rock band Van Zant originally created.
Most Drive-By Truckers LPs feature at least a song or two from a third writer, whether it’s Malone, Isbell, or Tucker. But English Oceans is structured like a conversation strictly between Hood and Cooley, alternating songs from both writers like a Hüsker Dü record. Hood and Cooley don’t write together, and they usually don’t share their new songs until it’s time to record. And yet the songs on English Oceans achieve a natural harmony that at times suggests an unspoken telepathy between the band’s composers. For instance, at the heart of the record are two songs — Cooley’s psych-folk tune “Made Up English Oceans” and Hood’s country-rocking “The Part of Him” — that are about phony, Bible-thumping politicians. Cooley’s song is characteristically impressionistic, with scores of killer lines. (My personal favorite: “6-by-9 and counting down in one after the other / They’ll go running up and down the road, angry as their mothers.”) Hood’s track, meanwhile, is typically cinematic, unfolding like a four-minute ’70s neo-noir. (“He was a piece of work, more or less a total jerk / His own mama called him an SOB.”)
Elsewhere, English Oceans is thick with songs about broken romantic relationships as seen from the point of view of the woman. No matter DBT’s macho reputation, Hood and Cooley have long been sympathetic to female perspectives in their songs, and it’s even more pronounced on Oceans. Hood’s “When He’s Gone,” “Pauline Hawkins,” and “When Walter Went Crazy” are about women stuck with men they’re too good for. Cooley addresses similar themes on the drunken slow dance “Natural Light,” where a woman is torn between her cell phone and the advances of a love-struck barroom admirer. Taken together, Hood’s intense character studies and Cooley’s laid-back observations act as perfect complements.
“Before either one of us were worth a shit, there was a great chemistry between us,” Hood says. “When we started playing together — he was 19 and I was 21 — we didn’t particularly get along most of the time. Sometimes we really didn’t get along. Sometimes we just fought like brothers, just fought for months.”
Back then, according to Hood, “we couldn’t have been more different.” Hood grew up immersed in music as the son of bassist David Hood, a member of Muscle Shoals’ fabled house band. (You can hear David Hood on Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” and Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” among many other tracks.) Cooley, meanwhile, “lived in a bubble inside a bubble” growing up. (“I heard what was on the radio, just like everybody else my age did,” he says.) Hood wrote songs every day as a kid, to the detriment of his schoolwork, accumulating hundreds of compositions by the time he (barely) graduated high school. Cooley didn’t start writing songs until he was 25, and only after constant encouragement from Hood.
“I knew he was a great writer long before he started writing it down,” Hood says. “Just hearing the way he talks, it’s like, ‘Man, you should write that shit down, it’s fucking poetry.’”
In the mid-’80s, Hood and Cooley formed their first band, Adam’s House Cat, which was basically Muscle Shoals’ version of the Replacements rip-off every one-horse Middle American town had in the ’80s and ’90s. Adam’s House Cat’s mix of country, punk, and classic rock was a dry run for the Truckers, only with weaker material and virtually no vision beyond scoring a local gig in an area dominated by cover bands and session musicians.
“Our whole thing was basically born out of a mutually shared incompetence,” Cooley says. “There was one point where we got a little attention. It was a high point, but in a way maybe the kiss of death, too. Musician magazine back then used to have this ‘best unsigned band’ contest, and we entered it and made it in the top 10. We got offered a publishing-type deal and it started looking like things were going to happen. And then that deal got pulled away at the last minute. The funding wasn’t there for it anymore and then we kind of changed our sound, and then a lot of people who were looking at us didn’t really like our reinvention of ourselves, thought we were off on the wrong track. And we may have been.”
The problem back then, as Cooley sees it, was that they were spinning their wheels furiously without any sense of direction. “I’ve always said that the band was the guy at the club or the party that you know is going home alone because he’s trying too hard,” he says. “It was that guy in band form.”
Hood and Cooley were also butting heads constantly. They were friends, but they were also young alpha males with a constant need to assert control over the other. Finally, after too much squabbling, they took a breather from each other in the early ’90s. Hood moved to Athens, and Cooley took a job as a house painter. (“Great job for a pothead,” he advises.) Soon, Hood found that he missed his old sparring partner.
“I played with some great people during that time and loved them and all that, but they would make my pretty songs prettier and my rocker songs rockier,” Hood says. “They did whatever seemed called for, and Cooley, almost without exception, did the opposite. If it was a pretty song, he would make it ugly. If it was an ugly song, he would do something beautiful. I really missed that.”
In Cooley’s mind, Drive-By Truckers eventually succeeded where Adam’s House Cat failed because “we didn’t give a shit. It was pure fun.” But in reality, the appearance of not giving a shit was a calculated move on Hood’s part to lure Cooley back into the fold.
“I set this band up in a way that enabled him to be here when he could and still be free when he wasn’t able to come. Whenever we booked shows, I’d let him know when they were. Like, if you can come, play. If you can’t, we’ll play without you. He didn’t miss many — probably half a dozen in the first six months, and maybe one after that, at the most.”
By the late ’90s — before Southern Rock Opera, around the time of the band’s 1998 debut, Gangstabilly — Hood and Cooley and the rest of the band had quit their day jobs and were playing “ridiculous schedules” out on tour. “There was a lot of unhappiness at home, so we just quit coming home,” says Hood, who wound up divorcing his first wife. “We had this 10-year-old Ford Econoline and we pulled a trailer and we just did it. Even though we may not have been pulling enough people for some of the rooms we were playing, the people who came would drink so much that the club was happy and would have us back.”
“The first time we actually went on the road for real was horrible,” Cooley recalls. “We went north in December. Bad idea. The shows were pretty far apart. We got to Lansing, Michigan, and the snow started coming down. And the next show was Buffalo. The best way to go is up into Canada, but you know, that weed. We didn’t even know how to go about it, so we drove from Lansing through Cleveland and around Lake Erie in a blizzard. Not a blizzard [just] by Southern guys’ standards — it’s like snow that people up there are going, ‘My god, that’s a lot of fucking snow.’ The band that shared the bill with us put us up at their house, and they had kids who had come home from kindergarten with the stomach flu, so a bunch of people from our camp got it. Every day, somebody else would be sick. As soon as it was over, I wanted to do it again.”
Touring so much has taken its toll on Drive-By Truckers over the years, which is evidenced by the turnover in the band’s lineup.
“The road breaks you,” Hood says. “It breaks your gear, it breaks your vehicles, and at times it breaks your head. It can break your relationships. We’ve had a lot of personnel changes through the years. It’s always been almost like a revolving door on paper, yet at any given time, I never looked at it that way. Because I don’t really like a lot of change. I like working with the same people. Sometimes some things aren’t meant to last, and some things last a long time. I never would’ve imagined that Cooley and I would be together 29 years later. But there are people that I’ve played with along the way that I thought, Man, I might get to play with that person forever. And I don’t. Play with them two years, three years.”
The loss of Tucker and Neff is “sad to me,” Hood says. “I’d rather it be friendly. I hope at some point in time, it can be, but it’s just what it is. Of course, she and John were in a relationship, so after she left, he was in the band for another year, and that was very tense and very uncomfortable, and not good, not positive in any way. He’s a great player, and they both have a lot of talent, but sometimes it’s just time to move on.”
When reached by email, Neff claimed he and Tucker had problems with only two members of the band: Hood and Morgan. “There was never an issue between myself and Jay or [new bassist] Matt [Patton] or Mike Cooley,” says Neff, who drifted in and out of DBT as a sideman since 1998 before serving as a permanent member from 2007 to ’12. Tucker released her first solo record, A Tell All, in 2013, and Neff currently plays in her backing band, Eye Candy.
“Patterson struggled with Shonna and I being together,” Neff says. “Brad had problems with Shonna being a contributing songwriter, and in my opinion, felt threatened by the situation. He told her that she ‘should know her place.’”
Hood appears to be on good terms with Isbell, who went on to a critically acclaimed solo career after cleaning up from the rock-and-roll lifestyle he undertook while still in the Truckers. (“I love those guys, but I’m glad I’m not playing with them anymore” was how Isbell put it to the New York Times Magazine in 2013.) A talented writer with an aching tenor who carved out a popular niche as the band’s George Harrison figure, Isbell is the closest DBT has ever come to having a third front man.
“I thought when Jason left, that was going to be the end,” Hood says. “I was scared to death. Because he was a very beloved member by everybody across the board. I thought the fans were going to revolt.”
Hood and Cooley decided to fire Isbell one night when DBT was on tour. They had the night off in Louisville, and the members all had their own hotel rooms. Hood couldn’t sleep, because “we saw the writing on the wall” regarding how dysfunctional the current band situation was. During the sessions for A Blessing and a Curse, “the songs that [Isbell] brought to the table just sounded like a different band’s songs. We didn’t play them the way he wanted them played, and we didn’t play the way he wanted it to sound. Of course, we’re all drinking a ton in those days and he was divorcing our bass player, and sometimes seeming to antagonize her on purpose, which would make for drama, which everyone gets really tired of quickly.”
To clear his head that night in Louisville, Hood went down to the tour bus, poured himself a drink, and sparked up a joint. Not long after, Cooley materialized; he was also losing sleep over the Isbell problem. “We sat there and drank about a half a bottle of whiskey and discussed what the fuck were we going to do,” Hood says. “Are we going to decide this is it and drive it into the ditch full speed ahead and let it go out in a ball of flames and explode onstage like Hüsker Dü? Or are we going to figure a way to soldier on? We decided, fuck it, we’ve come this far. Let’s don’t go out like this. It’s kind of cheesy.”
Drive-By Truckers are no longer on the 200-plus shows–per-year treadmill that Hood and Cooley happily climbed on back in the late ’90s. Hood turns 50 on March 24, and at 47 Cooley isn’t much younger. Cooley admits he was burned out after the consecutive album-tour cycles for 2010’s The Big To-Do and 2011’s Go-Go Boots, which was also a period when he struggled to come up with new songs. While tensions between Hood and Cooley never came to a head like they had with Tucker and Neff, Hood detected that Cooley was disengaging.
“It’s not like we were sitting around fighting, because it wasn’t,” Hood says. “It was almost more passive-aggressive. So that kind of takes a different toll. I think during some of that time — which had absolutely nothing to do with former members or whatever — Cooley was less than just happy being here, and I think it was becoming very much a job.”
Hood dealt with the discontent in the DBT camp by making another solo record, 2012’s Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, and touring with his side band, the Downtown Rumblers. He has also played out as a stand-alone singer-songwriter, relocating briefly to Portland, Oregon, in January for a monthlong residency at a club there. Hood was pleasantly surprised by how well the shows were received — Portland isn’t a great market for Drive-By Truckers — and says he is “pondering” a permanent move to the city. A lifelong Southerner, Hood has grown to hate the unbearably hot and humid summers. Plus, his wife might have a potential job opportunity there.
“The band’s going to be based here, period, whether I’m flying in or whatever,” Hood maintains. “But I could live there. It’s a great town.”5
When I half-jokingly gave Hood a hard time about moving — because Patterson Hood living in Portlandia would selfishly impact my romantic and thoroughly Southern perception of the band — he was somewhat defensive. “I’ve lived in the South for 50 years, so it’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden be different.”
As for the current state of Drive-By Truckers, Hood is bullish. “The lineup’s killer, Cooley’s got all these great songs, we’re all so happy with the record we made. He was so involved on every level of making this record, more than at any point ever, by far.” But there is a sense with Hood that even if the lineup weren’t killer, and Cooley didn’t have all these great songs, he would find a way to keep Drive-By Truckers going regardless. He talks about the possibility of Cooley walking away from him one day, but never the other way around. He’s seems to be locked in no matter what. “Well, what the fuck else am I going to do?” Hood asks rhetorically. “Form another band that has another name that pulls less people in and start over?”
The last song on English Oceans is Hood’s “Grand Canyon,” a ponderous sprawl dedicated to Craig Lieske, a friend and road companion who sold merch and acted as an informal liaison with fans in countless cities. Hood wrote “Grand Canyon” after the 48-year-old Lieske died suddenly in January 2013, right in the middle of last year’s 40 Watt run. It caused Hood to set aside the material he had earmarked for Oceans and start over, because “this record became something different when I wrote that song,” he says.
“We played that weekend because I had to play,” Hood recalls, his regular chatterbox effusiveness subsiding a bit. “Everybody’s come to town, it’s sold out, we’re here. Canceling the show wasn’t even an option. Craig would haunt us forever, and find ways to fuck us up if we did something like that. He was a very ‘show must go on’ kind of guy. So we played, and it was fucking brutal. After that weekend, we left for a two-week tour. Getting on the bus with an empty bunk, it was fucking terrible.”
When I saw them at the 40 Watt a few weeks ago, Drive-By Truckers ended the set with a lumbering rendition of “Grand Canyon.” A few hours earlier, it was preceded by “The Living Bubba,” from Gangstabilly, a similarly themed Hood composition about an Athens musician named Gregory Dean Smalley who kept on playing gigs right up until he died of AIDS. “I can’t die now, because I’ve got another show to do,” Hood sings in the chorus.
“Greg was one of those guys, and Craig was one of those guys, too,” Hood says. “He lived his life as long as he had it, until the very last moment. His last day on earth was about as good a last day on earth — other than it ending with dying — as I can imagine. He played a rock show, he played a great rock show. He hung out with his best friends, he went to bed with his beautiful fiancée, who he was very in love with, and he died in bed. If you gotta go … ”
Valentine’s Day at the 40 Watt wasn’t Drive-By Truckers’ best night. Tempos were occasionally woozy, vocals were inconsistently tuneful, and guitar riffs swerved dangerously close to the ground at times. But the feeling was there, as was the familiar boozy camaraderie onstage and in the audience. Besides, there will be plenty of time to tighten up in the weeks and months ahead. Because there’s always another show to do.